The Reason

THE REASON

Part 1: Elena’s story

Elena Bogren paused at the kitchen window as a scene from across the street caught her eye. The front door was open, a slim figure silhouetted in the light spilling out from the Kelly’s festive entry way. Elena had a glimmer of recognition for that slight, erect frame. “Well, little Johnny made it in after all. Late, as usual,” Elena observed wryly. “That boy!” As she was remembering a much younger Johnny playing in her own front yard, a much plumper and somewhat stooped figure stepped up to enfold the young man in her outstretched arms. Elena could not help letting her eyes linger on the tender scene.

A moment later, Grandma Kelly glanced up from the embrace of her grandson to meet Elena’s eyes across the way. She gazed for a long second before turning to usher the young man into their annual family gathering. Elena’s brief surge of warmth on glimpsing her neighbors’ celebration now turned to burning shame at her own awkward gawking. It was not her party, after all. She turned back to the painful task at hand.

Her mother’s recipe books had plenty of ways to bake a ham; that certainly was not the problem. Jim had brought an enormous spiral-sliced beauty home this evening, the perfunctory gift from his office managers, and beamed as he set it down among cans of sweet potatoes and English peas. “I didn’t want you to have to shop for the fixings,” he proclaimed as he planted a sweet kiss on her cheek. “Thank you for doing this,” he added.

That cheek had seen more than one tear brushed away this evening. She must not let Jim see how badly it hurt to attempt this meal her mother’s loving hands had prepared so many times. Elena had assured Jim he would have Christmas Eve dinner, and a dinner he would have. She had resolved in her heart that no matter how badly it hurt, she would make it happen. Lord knows, he deserved that much. She had turned down his offer of help with the few preparations this one required and shooed him away to his armchair to relax with the paper, a pleasure he had only recently returned to occasionally enjoying.

Jim had supported her unflinchingly as her mother lost her battle, painful day by excruciating day, with cancer. He managed so well over those months, surviving on take-out food, sandwiches, and whatever a can could afford. Elena had only to focus on her mother’s care during the darkest days of her life. Jim had been her rock through those final hours and the service that followed, just three weeks ago.

She thought she had been handling the meal prep stoically enough until the door across the street had opened. The floodgate of her own happy Christmas Eve memories flew open with it: the faces aglow from the fireplace, little ones nestled in the laps of parents and grandparents, Christmas carols forming the backdrop for happy conversation.

Elena’s siblings and grown children had been spared facing this first empty holiday in the home where they had made lifelong memories. Elena did not expect any of them to make another trip to spend Christmas here, after they had exhausted leave time and finances to be with their mother and grandmother at the end. She had assured them she was fine.

Though she had tried to brace herself for what she knew would be difficult, Elena had not anticipated the pain simply preparing a meal, with the glow of a “normal” Christmas Eve so nearby, could bring. And when that glow had burst into even more robust light shining through her own windows, Elena did not bother to look out again at the beautiful decorations she knew the Kelly’s must have just powered on. She focused anew on her resolve to pull this one off for Jim, but she grew more convinced that Christmas was not a season she would celebrate ever again after tonight.

Part 2: The Keene’s story

“Looks like the Kelly’s are getting things kicked off in style again,” Ralph said to Jack, his faithful Schnauzer. Just as he had reached down to pick up the evening paper the lights had blazed to life down the street: not the inside lights–those seemed to have been burning around the clock for the last few days—but the brilliance of their outdoor Christmas decorations, worked on for weeks, but by their unique family tradition, only brought to life the night before Christmas.

“Probably has a lot to do with the power bill,” grunted Ralph, who knew Tom Kelly to be thrifty fellow. Gail Kelly on the other hand, “Grandma” to most, always got her way somehow, when it came to doing Christmas in a big fashion. Despite himself, Ralph had to admire the display a minute before heading back to rejoin his wife in their dimly lit home.

The sight of Cathy’s slumped shoulders with her back to the window and face toward that door–the one she almost never opened anymore–brought fresh pain to his heart. The Kelly’s yard decorations were now casting a soft halo of light around the frame of Jerry’s door. Ralph knew what his wife was thinking. He, too, pictured the mornings that door had burst open when little Jerry could stand the wait no longer. Ralph could still hear his scurrying feet and his gleeful voice urging them into the living room on Christmas mornings.

Cathy had seemed to enjoy those mornings as much as Jerry, and Ralph had to admit they were his joy, as well. Being able to provide a “good Christmas” for their only son had put extra pride in his fatherly heart. It made the long hours he spent away at work seem less of a burden. At this moment he wished for some of those hours back to just toss a ball around with his son.

“Cathy, maybe we should go out for a drive, find some place to grab a bite to eat. Don’t you want to get out for a little bit?” He always wanted to take her pain if he could, to fix things.

“If there is somewhere we could go that it wouldn’t be Christmas,” she snapped. Cathy wondered again why the whole world had to go so crazy over a day on the calendar. They assumed everyone was merry and bright. She only wanted to hide away until the madness ended. “I wish those infernal Kelly’s would stop imposing their perfect family celebration on the rest of us,” she added. “People should realize Christmas just isn’t for everyone.”

Part 3: Tawana’s story

Sin hurt worse at Christmas. Any other day, one could put off the effects of having alienated family and abandoned beliefs for a life of promised pleasure. One could believe on any other day that the promise would be realized somehow. But this night it was all pain and loneliness.

On her way back to a house that was not was not home, Tawana paused heavy steps for a moment outside the window of the only home on this street lit up for the holidays. She remembered how her father had decorated for her every year, a lifetime ago. As she was about to continue toward the place where another man was waiting, she heard a deep, aged voice as a man began to speak, the words carrying through the window into the cold air.

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Visions of little boys in bathrobes and girls in angel costumes flooded Tawana’s mind. She wanted to run from the pain of those memories, but her feet seemed riveted to the sidewalk for some reason.

“…Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger…” Why was she still standing here? She had realized a long time ago Christmas was not—and never would be again—for anyone like her.

Part 4: The Kelly’s story

“Grandpa, why did they invite the shepherds to Jesus’ birthday?” Little Rod was always interrupting, and his mother’s stern glance had no effect.

“What, Rod? What do you mean?” the booming voice replied, not without some irritation.

“Well, the rich wise men were on their way with the presents, right?”

“Yes, the wise men were traveling to seek the newborn king and came some time later. Can we finish the story now?”

“But wasn’t that enough for baby Jesus? Why would they want the old smelly shepherds to come to their party, too?”

Something in Rod’s innocent voice arrested Grandpa Kelly’s heart. He knew why the outcast shepherds had been invited to the birthplace of the King of Kings. Rev. Tom Kelly, retired from many years pastoring a flock, remembered the hurting people he had reached out to over the years and the joy of seeing hope come into their eyes. The youngster’s question touched what had been burdening his mind this holiday season. Now, he could put it into words.

“You see, Rod, Jesus wasn’t coming just for those wise men, and He did not care so much about their gifts. When He grew up and started His ministry, the folks He touched first and most often were the hurting, the lonely, and the poor—people like those shepherds.”

“People like that lady outside, Grandpa?” Rod was pointing to the front window. All eyes turned to see a slim disheveled figure go pale and turn away.

Just like her,” Grandpa exclaimed and moved quicker than he had in a while. Bounding to the front door, he threw it open. “Ma’am, wait! Ma’am stop, please!”

Tawana froze, mortified at being spotted, but she could not help turning back toward the kind voice.

“Won’t you come inside and join us?”

“Join…you?” she faltered. “But I don’t even know you. Why would you ask me to come in? Besides, I’m not the type you people usually invite to parties.”

“Well, ma’am, seeing you standing out here has helped us remember why we are celebrating this night. You see, it was you, all of us, everyone really, that Jesus came for in the first place. He would not want you to be left out. You are the very reason why He came!”

The old man’s words sounded so peaceful and inviting that though she felt painfully ashamed of the signs of a godless lifestyle she knew her appearance bore, Tawana simply could not resist this love she was feeling. It did not matter at this moment that she did not understand. She allowed the weathered arm of Grandma Kelly to slip around her shoulders and draw her into the warmth inside.

Once Tawana was settled in near the fireplace with a cup of hot cocoa pressed into her cold hands, a thought began to come into focus in Gail Kelly’s mind. Remembering the sadness she had seen in Elena Bogren’s eyes earlier, the grandmother of many years felt God leading her to cross the street and knock on Jim and Elena’s door.

About the same time, Johnny remembered how he had caught sight of Mr. Keene when he went out to plug in the lights. He and Jerry had been great friends, but he had seen little of Jerry’s parents in the years since his death. Life had worn on and circumstances seemed to have separated them all. With the hearty approval of everyone present, he decided it was worth a try to reach out to them as well.

As the Spirit of the One they were celebrating went with the two emissaries, hurting hearts—even the ones hardened by years of pain—began a miraculous healing, and the Kelly’s gathering gently swelled.

That night the Savior of the world did what He came to do, as His children lived out the very reason why He came. Grandpa led them all in one more reading of Scripture after the fine meal they shared:

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings to the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound…to comfort all that mourn;” Isaiah 61:1-2 KJV.

Part 5: Your Story

Our individual stories are being written as we walk through our daily lives. How they play out will depend on our own understanding of our value to the One who robed Himself in flesh to live among us and to shed His own blood to purge us from our sins. Once we see with eyes of faith the love He wants to shed abroad in our hearts by the power the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of God that can live in us, and we respond to what we have seen with repentance and the washing away of our sins in the name of the Savior who died for us, Jesus Christ, we have paved the way for His love to pour into our souls in ways we could scarcely have imagined possible in this life.

At this season of seasons, seek to understand that you–with your hopes, your fears, your dreams, and your pain–are the reason why He came. So is your hurting neighbor, and those kids down the street whose mother does not know what the future holds for their little struggling family. As you recognize this, and respond as God directs, you are in line to have a more deeply blessed Christmas this year than any you have ever known. May God be with you, as He came to do.

Which Way Is Up?

Isn’t that the question of the day — when all that we knew and considered routine a few months ago is now being upended? Fear of getting and sharing an illness we had never heard of this time last year is now causing our very world to be paused, and we honestly do not know how or when the uncertainty will end.

We each find comfort during unsettling times in various ways: exercising our faith, communicating with friends and family or, one of my favorites, reading. Words can inspire, challenge, and comfort us as no other source can, and the written word seems to provide an extra measure of stability amid a changing reality.

I have held off on mentioning this, but at the dawn of the developing pandemic, I had completed and uploaded a book for self-publishing on Amazon. It was the worst possible time, of course, for a book launch or anything else that involved self-promotion, as the last thing I needed was attention for my work when the world was falling apart around us. In the last few days, though, I have begun to think more about the book’s contents and how they might benefit others facing uncertainty.

The work is a collection of essays on a variety of ideas. A few are personal experiences, and others are truths that I felt were worth passing along to others. Each is intended to inspire, challenge, and encourage.

I am offering a few insights into the first few pieces, to give an idea of what is inside. Some have a splash of humor, others are more serious. All are from my heart.

Up Is Just Backwards When You’re on the Way Down: Thirty Doses of Wit and Wisdom on Staying Upright

Chapter 1) SUNSHINE IS FOR EVERYONE, FIRE FOR A FEW

Ah, the warmth of the sunshine! One of the few things left on earth that is free is the benefit of that great glowing orb in the blue sky. Thus far, no government has found a way to tax it or to ration it out. If you can get to it, you can enjoy as much sunshine as you want. (Just remember the sunscreen.)

Fire, on the other hand, requires some effort. We are not told exactly when fire became part of the human experience, though our impression is that man has always warmed himself in that manner. The earliest specific references to fire in the Bible come from chapters 19 and 22 in Genesis. The first reference speaks of fire from Heaven raining on Sodom and Gomorrah, and the second reference mentions fire for the impending sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham (when God tested Abraham before providing a ram for the sacrifice).

We know that fire requires effort. Wood must be gathered (or chopped and split), laid in order, and lit by some source of flame or heat—unless you have one of those push-button, flame-throwing, gas-burning fireplaces. But I digress.

Freeware, anyone?

We love the sound of that word “free,” don’t we? I mean, the pulse quickens just a little to think we might be getting something new, and we owe nothing for it.

Recently I bought a new laptop, and as I readied it for use, my twenty-something-year-old daughter advised it would run a lot better if I wouldn’t put all that “stuff” on it. I was mildly offended, as I was sure my “stuff” … was necessary for making the device run optimally …

Chapter 2) UP IS JUST BACKWARDS WHEN YOU’RE ON THE WAY DOWN

Have you ever been lost? I mean the scary kind of lost that says, “I have no idea where to go from here.” I am not talking about the feeling of, “Where in the world of this vast Walmart parking lot is my car?” I am asking if you have ever felt the kind of lost that says, “If they don’t come looking for me soon, this is going to make the papers!”

There is no more helpless feeling, I suppose. It hasn’t happened to me more than once that I can remember, but it left a memory of fear when the familiar woods where I played began to look frightening and strange when it was time to get home.

When you are lost, things happen differently in how you relate to the world around you. Reason and intellect can assure you that a particular direction has to be right. But, taking off in that direction (instead of staying put, as all the scouting and survival manuals tell us to do) only leads further into hopelessness. Often, lost people who were later found had simply gotten turned around yet were convinced they were going the right way. The innate directional signals that should have helped them reach familiar territory got scrambled in their minds. At that point, they could not believe their map, compass, spouse, or…well, you get the picture, I am sure …

Chapter 3) THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS ME…NOW

“Yeah, I did that, but I was much younger, then — just a kid, really. I like to think I have a little wisdom on me now…don’t I?”

We may as well face it: we care how others see us; what they think of the choices we have made and the things we have done. If some example of our being less than wise is brought up, we are quick to put some distance between us now and the person who could have done that then. After all, we are allowed a few missteps in the teen and early adult years, right?

But, what if “then” was just last week?

What if we hurt someone’s feelings, forgot an important event, yelled at our kids, or jumped in front of an older lady in the check-out line because we were running late? And what if we did those things, like…yesterday?

What if we can’t put distance between ourselves and our less-than-stellar actions?

Maybe the more important question is, “Why do we want so badly to distance ourselves anyway?”

Perhaps because our actions seem to define who we are. We crave to be validated by others, to be part of a bigger group, to have others simply like us. The smile or chuckle we get from listeners for a comment we intended to be funny lets us know it was well-received. A blank stare or raised eyebrows says it was totally off-point and poorly timed. Our feelings about those responses weigh heavily on even the most independent, introverted among us …

Chapter 4) HOW TO SCRUB YOUR BATHROOM FLOOR IN 30 EASY STEPS:

Ladies, be sure to keep this handy for reference — you will want to try this at least once.

1) Start deep cleaning the kitchen and doing laundry.

2) Notice your cell-phone ringing.

3) Try to ignore it because you are on a serious roll with this cleaning.

4) Side-eye the phone and observe the number is your 76-year-old mother’s mobile phone.

5) Remember, she always uses her land-line phone from home, unless something goes wrong …

Chapter 5) FOUR MINUTES THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

  1. True ____ False ____ An inch is a large unit of measure.

The answer is obvious…isn’t it?

This was an actual question on a Physical Science exam during my freshman year in college — possibly a final, since I remember vividly my agitated state of mind upon reading it. After all, it cost me what could have been a perfect score and helped earn only my second “B” at the school (the first was in Volleyball, but enough said about that).

I was only in the class because of a foul-up on the part of my academic advisor (another story in itself) resulting in my having to abandon the biology minor I had invested three courses in pursuing. Physical science seemed downright hokey to me after sailing through zoology and botany. Adding to my somewhat wounded pride was the undeniable fact that I simply did not like the instructor. He seemed to teach at a level of challenge designed to keep the university’s sports teams winning, with or without the players having to apply themselves academically.

With such a positive mindset, the exam question asking whether an inch was a large unit of measure set my brain to screaming, “COMPARED TO WHAT???!!! MILES OR MICRONS???!!!” With a fifty percent chance of getting that one right, as you might guess, I did not. I can’t remember which I chose but probably checked “True,” just to make my point.

Great choice …

THE REST OF THE STORY

Here are the titles to the other chapters, or doses, if you will. I would love to know how you like whatever you choose to read. Leave a comment below, or a review wherever you purchase the books. God bless.

WHAT’S UP WITH HIM??

FROM COLORS TO CHEMISTRY, FROM ADDITION TO ALGEBRA

THE SAGA OF SALLY

TWO THINGS I BET YOU CAN’T DO AT ONE TIME

THAT’S WHAT YOU GET!

JUST DON’T PLAN ON DOING ANYTHING TOMORROW

WHEN YOU HAVE TIME

WHAT ARE YOU HERE TO DO?

HOW DO YOU WALK ON WATER?

WHAT GETS TO YOU?

WHAT IS YOUR EARLIEST FAITH MEMORY?

GOD WITH HIS SKIN ON?

“ARE YOU GOING TO EAT THAT?”

HOLINESS

FENCE OR GUARDRAIL?

THE TRUE WONDER OF THE SEASON

MY HEART ON CHRISTMAS EVE, 2013

CHECK IT OUT!

THE SHOW-ME STATE…OF MIND

SOMETHING FOR NOTHING?

WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR WATER?

FATHERLESS DAY

THE CLOSING OF THE DOOR

ALL DONE!

WELL, WHAT IS IT GOING TO BE?

Me and Christmas 

I know, it probably should be “Christmas and me”. Or is it “Christmas and I”?

You decide, as I talk about this unique phenomenon we call “Christmas” as seen through the lens of my heart.

There are questions within the community of sincere believers as to whether this event warrants nearly the focus it gets, especially when compared to the world-changing end result: our Savior’s blood being shed for our cleansing and to make a way for us to be saved, His rising from the dead and opening a door for us to have new life.  The joy that accompanies the recognition of Him pouring out His Spirit upon all flesh is the celebration of the Promise of the Father which was shed forth as prophesied, first in Acts chapter 2, then throughout the time of the Apostles, down through human history, and then in my heart.

It is, I understand, impossible to make a case for the way Christmas is observed being in the Word. But is there a place for it, or could it be seen as serving some purpose?  I know we are not commanded to observe it, nor do I personally find a place where it is clearly forbidden (I know that line of thought opens a whole other set of questions). I realize there are people who feel very strongly about this issue and would be well prepared to enlighten all on the dangers of the celebration as it now stands.  I believe sincerely-held convictions should be kept, and anyone has the right to explain and defend them as they see fit.

It is just not my intention here to enter that debate, and I respectfully ask that it not be carried out in response to this little presentation of my perspective.

Christmas?

It surprises some who are out of the mainstream of Christian thought that there would be any question about whether Christians would celebrate Christmas. Please note, again, that I am not using this platform to offend anyone who has sincere convictions against any aspect of this celebration. I get that there are people who go into debt to impress people who care nothing about them, just because the season “calls” for gifts to be given. I get that people get deeper into their shame and ungodliness because tradition “calls” for a bigger party this time of year. I get that retailers make huge profits off the mania that entices parents to buy the latest and greatest and biggest and best for kids and grand-kids.

I even get that “Christmas” is not in the Bible, as “Easter” is.  There is no recorded instance of its being observed, as the Apostle Paul spoke of traveling to Jerusalem in time for Easter. And I get that the “-mas” part of the word was referring to the Catholic mass, which is far away from my idea of “church”.  At the time it became a celebration, though, “mass” was the only recorded type of service being held, as the officially recognized church body (and the one that created the narrative of history in that time period) was the Roman Catholic church.

When the prophesied Gift was first given, it was, in fact, only recognized by a host of angels in the heavens who chose to reveal it to a few shepherds, and later by wise men from the East who followed a star. So why would someone whose faith draws the lines between herself and the world a lot further back than most people even consider dipping a toe in the pool of Christmas celebrations as they are today?

Why indeed?

Because HE CAME.

The God of Heaven, Who created all things by His Word, chose to robe Himself in flesh and come to the world: the frail, foil-able humans He made, who couldn’t seem to get it right no matter how hard they tried.  That was the moment that all of the world — all of history  — changed.  Forever.

The fact that He chose to keep the advent of His power-robed-in-flesh almost a secret in the beginning makes it all the more powerful. It would be easy here to review so many prophecies that were fulfilled by the way He came: the place, the time, the kings (wise men) coming to the “brightness of His rising”– the magi who followed the star — the wrath of Herod seeking to destroy Him and bereaving Rachel of her children in the process…

The balance of this post could cover those.  As I’m referring to my perspective, let me just say that studying how those things fell perfectly into place, whether or not it was understood that way at the moment by those involved, brings welling-up joy to my spirit.

Listing my favorite scriptures along this line would be a worth-while use of my time and yours. I’ll suffice it, though, with my very favorite, Isaiah 9:6:  For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Did you hear that? The Mighty God. The Everlasting Father.

I have elaborated elsewhere on where this scripture fits in our understanding of Who it was that came.

But my goal in the time I have your attention as a reader (if that hasn’t already run out) is to shed light on another aspect: what happens to the world at this time of year.  Yes, I said, the world.

It’s different at Christmas

We have the sense that special things happen this time of year.  To what degree that perspective is influenced by sweet stories thought up by writers like me is difficult to determine> But still, I believe special things do happen around Christmas.  If people are going to think of their families, make an effort to be with them by any means possible, and in some cases reconcile long-held differences, this is more likely to happen during this season.  In all fairness, if families are going to split over whose house the grand-kids go to first, or how much to put on the credit card, this is also more likely to happen.

Still, there is a moment in the year when some stop to think, even on a shallow level, of something, and Someone, they would not otherwise think of. I believe the divide between man and Heaven grows thinner for a few days at this season, and that hearts can be enticed to consider something they otherwise are not wont to think of.  I submit that even the inappropriate addressing of this season by some still serves to point to the fact that it exists, for better or for worse.

I submit that the most amazing thing about Christmas is that it happens, year after year.  Somewhere around Thanksgiving we begin to turn our hearts from the mundane of what our schedule requires to consider a wonder beginning to take place.  In the book that launches the Pevensie children into Narnia — The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — a sad state of affairs where evil’s grip has imposed a cold so pervasive that it is “always winter but never Christmas” begins to subtly change as Aslan, the figure whose presence represents a redeemer, begins to make his influence known in that land.  Ice begins to thaw, snow turns to slush, and soon sunshine, green grass, and flowers appear.  That phenomenon parallels what I begin to feel as the season draws near, and I ponder the wonder of what happened when He came, and what occurs every year at the remembrance of it.

Is this okay?

So what about the weird, wild, or crazy things that people are doing in the name of Christmas? Is that okay? I somewhat believe people keep – or don’t keep – Christmas according to what’s already in their hearts.  Those who have chosen debauchery as a lifestyle, choose that at Christmas-time as well.  Those who are choosing to seek the Holy One the rest of the year are seeking how to honor Him best during this time.  And those who aren’t sure how to please Him, but sincerely want to know, are those who most are needing His touch. I submit that touch is best made transferred through the hands and hearts of those of us who know Him.  Whatever our choices are at this season, let them be made with a love and adoration that is a real and true reflection of the truth of God that will work in any month of the year.

I was blessed to get a degree in psychology and sociology for my undergraduate studies.  That didn’t qualify me to do a whole lot, but to observe how we tend to think and behave, both individually and in groups.  One of the most convincing aspects of there being a reality to Christmas is how we change at this “most wonderful time of the year”. You can’t deny people start to look at things differently; there’s some joy here and there, some kindness, and some caring.  Please know that I’m not such a Pollyanna that I only see the good.  I realize that losses and sadness and loneliness are much more keenly felt as well, but only (I believe) because there is so much joy that surrounds this season until the lack of expected joy seems so cruel to those who don’t have it.

Even efforts to stamp out the phrase “Merry Christmas” from the lips of employees calls attention to the fact that there is a “Christmas” to be celebrated at all.  It really doesn’t matter to me if they say Merry Christmas or “Happy Holidays”, as this most special one falls within a trio that runs from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.  Collectively it’s easier to wish someone joy for all than for each one separately.  Let each person say what fits their conscience.  They’re not going to damage Christmas, in my opinion.

The joy

There is much more that could be said, but it’s Christmas, and we don’t all have our presents wrapped yet.  Just think on this: in the midst of the self-imposed craziness — because we try in good faith to do more than we possibly have time to do — turn your heart upward for a moment, and say, “Thank you, God, that You came. Teach me to joy in your presence and to honor You with my observance of that awesome moment in history.”   I believe the God Who instituted seven separate times of feasting for His chosen people in the Old Testament will not necessarily take offense that we have a celebration over His coming to earth to redeem us from our sins.

I truly wish you and yours a most blessed and joyous holiday season, and especially a glorious remembrance that He came.

 

Never stop dating

“Never stop dating!”

That advice is given to those who want to know how to keep their relationship strong, perhaps from those who have realized just in time that their love had cooled and had to be rekindled.

We often struggle in various types of relationships to hold on to the sweet, close times. Life so strongly comes along and wedges its way between people who were once perfectly attuned to one another. How can we keep this from happening? What can be done?

Never stop dating. 

Be intentional about finding what brings a smile to that person’s face, and go out of your way to make it happen. 

The couple who graciously agreed to let me use this picture from a few years back has certainly been a shining example of this advice. Through cancer, strokes, unspeakable family losses, and health declines that most would find hard to comprehend, the light of love still shines so brightly between them. As this picture captured, they are beautifully intentional in showing their love and fierce devotion for each other. When God referred to the marriage relationship as demonstrating His commitment to us, I’m sure this is what He pictured.

As I was preparing breakfast the other morning, something caught my attention: I recognized a “little thing” as being something my Jesus had provided for me. In that moment I thought about what had happened over the past 30 years. The beginning of this beautiful walk with God was often marked by moments of becoming keenly aware of some small thing, and acknowledging how sweet it was that Jesus noticed that and addressed it; of how touching it was to feel His presence in the otherwise mundane occurrences of life; of how different that awareness and closeness were from what I thought was an equivalent walk with God in my denominational upbringing and the years before the Holy Ghost came.

I was still amazed for years at the depth of His presence I had been allowed to know, when in the past, I had only read about and imagined such a true closeness. I knew this change had come because of the Gospel of the Apostles (Acts 2:38) which I was allowed to see as being still  relevant today, and which would bring this power when literally obeyed. I knew that my doing so, by His grace and mercy, had brought all the difference.

When one person in a relationship who reaches out for a close, even intimate, moment is rebuffed or ignored, they often withdraw and become unreachable to the other party. We are formed in the image of God — not only our physical being, but our emotional make-up as well. God penned, through the hand of Solomon, the story of the maiden’s Beloved knocking at her door at a time she found it inconvenient to answer. By the time she decided to arise and open the door, her Beloved had withdrawn himself and gone. 

I remember wet tears rolling down my face once to read that story, and to understand the implications for the treasured walk with God I had been given: if the Spirit of God moved on me for prayer, for closeness, and my heart was “busy” and uninterested at the time, He could very easily move away and be unavailable when I found a “convenient season”. (Felix, who trembled at the preaching of Paul in Acts 24, and chose not to yield to what God was doing until a “convenient season”, never was recorded to have had God deal with him again.)

When God described, through the prophet Amos, Israel’s disdain for the feasts and solemn days He had commanded them to observe — times He had ordained for them to draw closer to Him — He said in that context that he would send a famine unto them, not for meat and drink, but for the hearing of the Word of the Lord. Please know that we don’t come to God when we decide to: we come when He draws us (John 6:44), or not at all.

Over time what changed for me was the recognizing what sweet things were being done, and the remembering that it hadn’t always been that way in my life. Taking the ones we love for granted is something we struggle with in every type relationship. We can even begin to believe we are the reason for our own success in situations where we would look pretty silly propped up by ourselves to make our own way in the world.

Remember. Recognize. Acknowledge. Look for God’s hand in the little things, and take time to thank Him. Talk sweet praises and loving phrases to the God who came to make everything new, and who walks in things both good and bad — for you. If you’ve never seen the truth of Acts 2:38 as it applies to your life, then seek to know God that way — don’t shy away because it represents something different than what you have known. For me, that seeking represented the beginning of something more beautiful than even I could have pictured at the start.

“Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, for thou has left thy first love.” (Rev. 2:4) 

It need not be that way: Start dating again. . . 

The Flood: Our story

“It may actually get into our house this time.”

Our house”  is a place I have visited since childhood,  home of a beloved cousin just far enough ahead in age to marry while I was a young girl, and to have never failed to provide adventures when we’ve gotten together.

Memories flowed in, from the small shed she and her husband lived in on the land they’d saved up to buy while they worked along on their house. I spent a week with them in what seems like about a 6′ X 8′ space in my mind, just as happy as could be. I could almost trace every inch of the original floor plan in the 1800 square foot cozy home. Over the years it seemed nearly every time we’d visit something had been added or updated or developed a little further.  Not sure how many square feet it had come to. They didn’t brag, and I didn’t ask. Every change had a plan, a reason to be included: a space for family get-together’s, plenty of room for the grandchildren,  little touches that together created an atmosphere many family members grew to consider a second home, even those of us several hours away. There are roots that have gone down there over the years.

Multitudes of memories. . .

“Well, keep me posted.”

I hadn’t even called about flooding. I had no idea any was expected. I was calling to let her know results on my daughter’s medical test. She was concerned about that. I was calling to see if she and her husband wanted to drive two hours to celebrate her aunt’s (my mother’s) 80th birthday over lunch the next weekend.  They would do that sort of thing in a heartbeat: drive a couple of hours to meet us, eat, visit, and then drive back home.  They have done it for years, pretty much spoiling all of us with how easy they make it look to sacrifice for their extended family..

Our conversation was interrupted by a somewhat frantic call to her husband from their daughter whose home is next to theirs.  She was alone at home while they returned to Denham Springs from New Orleans. I heard snippets of the conversation from his phone.

Roads and streets leading to their home had been abruptly closed, the daughter reported. My cousin had to stop again as someone had come up to their window — as they sat stuck in traffic — telling them the interstate ahead was already closed in spots and some routes were being diverted.  This was Friday morning.

When we resumed talking, it was with her assurances they would get to their daughter if they had to get a boat to do it, and that it would all be OK.  After all, “God’s got this,” she confidently affirmed.

She rehearsed their plans for moving business-related equipment to her brother-in-law’s house on higher ground so they would be in position to respond to the needs of their gas line customers once the water receded.  They would be fine to stay in their homes: she and her husband in the second story they had added a few years back; their daughter in her house built four feet off the ground.  These are people who–if anyone does–know how to prepare for just about anything, neither foolish nor over-confident.

After we hung up, I began, as I often do when unusual weather is pending, to scan my weather app for updates in that area. I came across this:

Flood forecast screenshot

That upgrade from “minor to record severity” in the forecast flooding alarmed me a bit, but they are people who it seemed to me had handled so much already in their life-times, and I had no doubt they would know how to stay safe in this.  Still, I was praying and checking, following their updates on Facebook.

The mood was what I would describe in our area when there is a hurricane approaching: check the supply of candles, get some bottled water, buy some Spam if you really must, but otherwise, it will be OK when the wind stops blowing. Over two hours north of the Gulf Coast, that had worked well for us most of the time. But then there was Katrina.

When I went to bed Friday night I was confident they would be able to recover quickly from whatever damage might be done with the water they were told to expect.

I woke the next morning to this picture from their daughter’s front door, the one four feet off the ground:

Front door view of flood.jpg

I sent a text to her mom. They had indeed slept upstairs just to be on the safe side, she replied, but awakened to find the refrigerator floating in the kitchen, water pouring in at the doors, and wooden floors buckling.

“The doors won’t open. I am about to wade to a window and try to get out.”

No more illusions about this being just another water event common in south Louisiana. No more hopes for a few inches of water that would be a pain to clean up.

Clearly it was time for them to not just get out of the house, but to go as far as they could away from there, in my view. But I knew it was not what they would do. I knew that in a few minutes, one more boat would be hitting the water as they went to check on their neighbors, and soon somebody else would be pulled to safety.

I tried to be patient, watching Facebook, knowing there was little time to chat.  When I could stand it no longer, I checked back with their daughter.

“Are ya’ll OK?”

“I am turning in circles in my living room.  Dad told me I need to get out, but I can’t even think what on earth I should try to take.”

Decisions she had never conceived of having to make now had to be reached in a few minutes’ time.

“What do I do about my great aunt’s chairs she left me? The little special things? Do I take clothes? I absolutely have no idea! This is just crazy!”

I tried to be consoling, but acknowledged I could not imagine what she was going through.

“A dog just jumped out of his owner’s boat in front of my house and there was no way he could go back for him with the current. He is just out there barking and pitiful but I can’t get to him. I can’t do anything! So, no, we are NOT OK!”

When all I could think to say began to sound hollow in my own ears,  I was about to let her get back to her crisis, when it occurred to me there was one more thing I could offer.

“Let’s take a minute to pray before we go.”

As we prayed over the phone, Heaven’s touch came down, and I felt some peace at least come into my heart, and believed some dawned in hers as well.

I won’t post the image of her mom wading through water to her armpits to get back into a boat, as she left the only home her children had known growing up, the refuge for any who needed a place to stay, the recovery site for multiple extended family members who had suffered horrific accidents or life-altering illnesses over the years (because they have always been willing to stretch themselves for those they loved and opening their home was only natural). In short, she was leaving the central hub of our family’s memories, and a haven we knew would be there for us, too, if we needed it.

I did not breathe any easier until 1:00 p.m. when the text came that they had been picked up by the brother-in-law, whose house was safely above the flood, the one where the equipment had been moved. At least they could pass the night comfortably before seeing what had become of their homes.

“I’ve got a little baby in here: please just take my wife and kids!”

That was only one of the stories they related when we talked later that afternoon. One of the shocked residents of their neighborhood had called out for rescue by their boat and many others, pleading for just his family to be taken. The sharp “No!” in reply had not been understood to mean that the father would not be left behind. He only heard a refusal to help, and immediately cried, “At least take the baby!” The National Guard had them safely out a few minutes later.

I tried to picture the sheer force of the raging water as she talked of pulled muscles she had sustained just getting through it, and I had no way to imagine less hearty people managing to push through those waters.

There was only a hint of concern in that conversation mid-afternoon that the water was continuing to behave unexpectedly, and a suspicion evolving that it could potentially continue to rise.

“Do you have a boat where you’re staying big enough to hold all six of you if it does?”

“No, there’s only a small boat here.”

Still mostly confident they were safe, I did begin to pray harder that all would go well.

By 7:30 that evening they were trying to find a way out. Facebook began to light up with questions about what roads were open near them, and comments exploded with family and friends in the area who were still unaffected trying to find a route for them to drive out.

There was none.

Was there someone who could reach them by boat? These folks had rescued others all day.  Couldn’t someone help them?

I remained confident that would happen shortly.  These people are survivors. They have a strong network of family and friends: people who would scale tall buildings or swim deep oceans if  necessary to help them. Rescue teams like the one they had been a part of earlier, locals with boats and big hearts, had been out all day plucking people from danger.

Someone would be helping them soon.

Only they couldn’t.  Night was falling–a terrible time for water and uncertainty to be rising.  Those Good Samaritans’ boats were not equipped with the kind of lighting required to navigate murky waters that rendered streets all but invisible in the daylight, held multiple barely-submerged hazards, and raged with a current almost impossible to fight.

Post after post, share after share, desperate comment after desperate comment from friends and family near and far pleaded on their behalf. It felt absolutely incredible to embrace the idea that these people who would give their lives for any of the people out there were not going to be pulled from this danger.

Officials had to order those who would love to help out of the water until daylight.

When the only remaining option was to access the emergency management system, the next Facebook  post was,

“911 busy.”

Livingston Parish Emergency Operations Center had been relocated when their own offices flooded, but numbers were circulating to directly contact the National Guard, Sheriff’s Office, and Homeland Security, along with the private individuals operating when they could, to request rescue. Over fifteen numbers were on the list.

8:10 p.m. “I have no idea what to do.  No one is answering the phone.”

Could a network that large be getting overwhelmed?

8:19 p.m. “I finally got in touch with the Sheriff’s office.  They put us on a list to rescue. They said there are hundreds ahead of us.”

Posts of friends and family on dry ground, near and far, intensified trying to find a way themselves, and tagging other individuals to try and help. It still seemed that one of those options must be the one that would save the day. But lead after lead turned into dead ends. Fear began to knot up in my stomach.

Thus began a night none of us will forget.  Family who would have given a kidney for them had to just wait and watch the posts about the water rising:

“Sitting on the kitchen table with feet in the chairs,  water now two inches over the chairs.”

“Still waiting. Water waist-deep and continuing to rise.”

“Power’s out. You wouldn’t believe the spiders, roaches and other bugs, frogs, and snakes in this water.”

Still, there was that sense of humor:

“…At least we are all OK and making some really funny memories.”

But these were people who weren’t spring chickens for the most part, several of them in their sixties, a couple with heart conditions, one with asthma and a history of pneumonia, all having exhausted themselves during the previous day. The fatigue and pain were real enemies. How long could they stand this?

It was easy to feel frustration that nothing seemingly was being done.  Come daylight, we would learn how many thousands of rescues took place that night.  It is hard for that to even sink in. Tens of thousands of lives were being saved by local authorities, National Guard, and Coast Guard personnel.

It was a waiting list one could not track as it unfolded and the water continued to rise.

I lay there (in my warm, dry bed) praying.  Again. And again. And again.  Nothing changed. In the wee morning hours my prayer became “God, You could fix this.”

I have been blessed by some amazing answers over the years.  I began to feel the line had gone dead.

“A couple of us have gotten into the little boat.  When you think it can’t get any worse, it can.”  It had started to rain again.

The tone of posts from family members too far away to do any good became desperate.

“Someone please help them! They don’t deserve this!” Of course, no one deserved it, but that was a testament to the utter incredulity of family having to simply hold our hands and wait.

The conviction grew that we truly stood to lose them while we watched from our perches in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, as helpless as anyone could be.

The families of thirteen people, as of this posting, did experience that ultimate tragedy.  My heart goes out to them.   I can only imagine their vigil of hoping to receive better news than what eventually, tragically came.  I learned this weekend that one was an elderly lady next door to where my family passed the night who, once she made it to safety, lay down on a couch to go to sleep, but never woke up. We continue to pray for all affected.

I expected a number astronomically higher than what it has been.  (But for the nature of the people in the area, their sense of connection to each other before this began, and the abundant waterways that meant many owned boats they were more than happy to put into service, the nation would be reeling at the death toll.) I struggled to not picture my loved ones among that number.

Day broke.  The flotilla of locals returned to the water.  By 8:00 a.m., that phase of the weekend that changed so much forever was over.

They have been back to survey the damage.

The place I have known as a peaceful refuge since childhood, that had seen water to the steps during the last record flood but not a drop inside in the forty-five years they had been there, received a full eight feet of water.

The house will very possibly have to come down. The weight of the upper floor may be buckling the compromised lower walls.  Even if that doesn’t happen, the memories of early morning quiet times in the little breakfast nook, or of the quiet strolls through a spacious garden built up over the years for themselves and their guests to enjoy, the couch where we sat to have the last heart-to-heart will have to suffice. There are specific memories for virtually every room: rooms that are now themselves only memories. We were going there for Thanksgiving again this year.

We never could have imagined our next trip would be to join the help quickly pouring in that is, just as quickly, being swallowed up in a sea of need. People who would gladly help anyone are struggling to find someone who can spare a few hours to give them assistance, as family after family after family salvages what they can and tries to prevent deeper damage from mold setting in.

It is funny how the outsides of homes so often look the same.  You know which have been flooded only by the piles of treasures mingled with torn-out Sheetrock, insulation, and flooring by the road. I learned today there are some simply living in the mud, sleeping on wet mattresses, as the mold grows. Elderly and single moms have few options.

We spent a day and a half building onto our loved ones’ pile, shaking our heads, and adding sweaty hugs to whatever words of consolation we could find.

They are deciding what to do.  When all is wiped away, recreating just what had been–at this point in life–isn’t the most practical scenario.  There will be plenty of time for talking about what we have learned from this, or why we feel it could have happened, or what God is doing in it. If there is an immediate takeaway, it would be to live every moment with those you love as though it is not only your last one with them, but your last one with the life you have known with them.

And trust God with your family, when you see Him moving as you would like Him to, and when you don’t see.

Just don’t plan on doing anything tomorrow

Photo courtesy of Lynn Kelly Author via WANA Commons

The first week of our sixth year with Alpha Omega Christian Academy has just about come and gone. It’s been a full one, with numerous challenges and rewards, but as a day or two off before the next week draws near, it seems like a good time to revisit this post from July 3, 2012.

Let’s have another look, shall we?

JUST DON’T PLAN ON DOING ANYTHING TOMORROW

With tomorrow being a national holiday, that surely sounds tempting: just a day to do whatever comes to mind, or nothing in particular.  I feel having a day with a plan like that once in a while is beneficial.

There’s another way of looking at whether or not we’re planning on doing anything tomorrow:  it’s the “I’m going to get to that…Tomorrow!” list. At this point in my life, I’ve seen several things die of old age on my “Tomorrow!”  list.  But a few crumbling remnants did make it over to “Oh, why not go ahead and try?”, and those that did made lasting impressions.

Like the time I decided for real that credit cards were crazy, and that I was about to be.  Mind you, that was no heroic thing.  It came after I totaled my less-than-one-year-old car, and began to look at my budget, spending plan, frantically scrawled figures, to see what I could afford.  Answer:  “NOTHING”.  Very disappointing.  A single mom, I’d been digging a hole deeper and deeper in credit card debt, thinking I’d get straight “Tomorrow!” I really couldn’t afford much of anything with real money.

I was directed toward the solid financial teaching/debt-lambasting of Dave Ramsey, who had gone bankrupt before learning financial principles.  Of all the good programs on getting out of debt, his communicated to desperate, debt-strapped people (already feeling like idiots), “You’re no dumber than I was, just don’t stay that way!”  The courage to try was imparted. So, with much prayer, and a plan for trimming a few non-essentials from our new budget, the cards were cut up, and I humbly went shopping for something closer to my reality-range. The progress hasn’t been perfect, but having greater balance has been golden. As long as that decision to stop and turn around was on the “Tomorrow!” list, though, I got no benefit from it — only mounting anxiety.

Another thing off the “Tomorrow!” list, is what I’m doing now:  Writing.  In my social work career, the opportunities to compose and collaborate on documents seemed among the most rewarding tasks I had. I grew to see it as more than an interesting sideline and more of a worthy pursuit.  How did I discover that?  By starting.

So you may be processing that last idea: “You found out by starting, and you started by finding out?  Huh?”  Let me explain.  I read someone’s blog I wanted to comment on, and to do so, had to sign up for the blog-hosting site (wordpress.com). When I did, I realized that writing a blog was in my power to do (and was free). That was exciting — and scary.  But the overriding sense was that I felt I had something to say.

The chance to read others’ blogs through Word Press showed me there were writers out there actually encouraging the writing of people they’d never met.  Who knew? Kristen Lamb‘s blog was of this sort, and by looking at the blogs of others who’d commented on her posts, I found several more with solid advice, and the ability to help growing writers learn.  They actually seemed to care whether I wrote that book that’s been on my “Tomorrow!” list so long.

So, my point? One of my favorite sayings is: “It’s easier to guide a vehicle in motion.” Duh, of course it is.  Yet how often have we looked at things we’ve dreamed of and thought, “I just don’t know if I could.  Maybe I’ll look into it…Tomorrow!” The way to know if it’s time to begin is: to begin — just take steps.  Baby steps are great.  With so much of the world’s knowledge at your fingertips (through internet on computer and smartphones, or even your good old neighborhood library), you have the ability to learn about your interest freely. Just begin to inquire: try, and see what can happen.

One more story.  When I retired a year ago, after 27 years as a social worker, I had some misgivings of “What next?”. I prayerfully asked that, and by the time retirement was official, I was deeply immersed in opening our church’s Christian School — our pastor’s vision, but an area I’d felt a connection to many years before.  Learning as we went, all involved were all amazed at the resources and support we found.

Looking back on this first year reminds me of this phrase from God’s word: “…the Lord working with them…” (Mark 16:20). It describes men who didn’t sit back and wonder if they should start, but began, and knew they weren’t working alone. The Lord worked with these apostles who were following his command to preach the gospel (detailed in the book of Acts), and he confirmed their word “with signs following”.

Obviously there are seasons for things in our lives, but when there’s a tug to pursue a passion, even if your ability seems fragile, the doing something — moving it from the “Tomorrow!” list — is the only way to know what can happen. So, just don’t plan on doing anything “Tomorrow!”  See what you can start “Today!”

End of a life? Or end of an era?

File Aug 03, 6 45 21 PM

For me it marks the end of an era.  The passing didn’t make the news, but it certainly affected me.

You see, my earlier single years were impacted by a touch much gentler, more personable, and certainly more genteel than my own. That touch was embodied in three special ladies — two sisters and their first cousin. They and their families took me in, in a manner of speaking, and quietly changed me. While time and circumstances were to push us all in different directions eventually, there was a few years’ interlude that marked my life to this day.

I had never been a “girlie girl”. Just wasn’t. I remember thinking from a young age about what I would “be”, and I hate to say it, but I don’t recall the vision of becoming a wife and mommy competing well with “scientist” or later “psychologist” or the one that eventually  stuck, “social worker”. I went straight from high school to senior college to graduate school to a career, and though I dated some along the way, I wasn’t particularly in a hurry to “find someone”.

Not long after moving back to Mississippi from my year-long attempt to follow my dreams in North Carolina, I had begun to seek God more seriously than ever before, and had been filled with the Holy Ghost at age 26, which began another phase of life, serving the Lord with all my heart. When a few years later I moved to a community nearer my church, I was brought into contact with this group of ladies from an older time. Their desire to exercise biblical hospitality simply bowled me over. It was Sister Grace, Sister Hosey, and Sister Montgomery. (They weren’t nuns, we just use the term “Sister” as one of endearment and respect within our Pentecostal church family.) I’m not sure why two of the ladies were addressed by their last names and the other by her first, except that “Sister Turnbough” might have been a mouthful — few were even sure how to spell it — but most of all, “Grace” just seemed to describe her best.

The events that would draw this reclusive young woman into a family I didn’t know began not long after I moved into the tiny rental house. A knock on my door one Saturday morning brought me face to face with one of the ministers of our church. He had just come from Sister Grace’s house, almost directly across the road from mine. He had prayed for her, he said, but was concerned that she was in pretty bad shape and needed someone with her. My immediate thought (not at all seeking to be the hero in this story) was, “Doesn’t she have family around here? Why me? Besides, it sounds like she needs an ambulance more than companionship.” But, having been “raised”, spiritually speaking, to be in obedience to the ministry, I just said I would go, and went on over. That morning literally changed my life.

The fact is, the woman did need an ambulance, and anyone else probably would have already called for one long before. But Sister Grace truly had the faith of a child, and it had already brought (and would continue to bring) great miracles in her life. She was probably having a stroke. Her face was so distorted it was grotesque to look at, and whatever was happening had affected all her limbs. Seeing the look on my face, she assured me she’d been prayed for and knew God was going to work. The ambulance idea seemed a little difficult to bring up just then, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to pray with her just a bit. Perhaps I could explain my delay to her family.  After a few minutes of prayer, she announced, “Susan, I believe He’s touched my feet! I feel it! Let’s praise Him for touching my feet!” Through my anxiety about possibly letting this woman die on my watch, I began to join her in praising God for touching her feet. In my way of describing it, the Holy Ghost fell in that living room! In a moment’s time, we were worshiping and praising God like it was a high church service. As we praised Him, she announced, “He’s touched my legs! Let’s praise Him for touching my legs!” and here we went again. This continued and progressed until I saw her face go back to normal, and she was as whole as anyone who’d never been affected by anything unusual. I was not only greatly strengthened in my own faith, but my spirit was melded together with the spirit of this woman in a way that nothing else could have done. It would sustain me in years to come, and in ways I could not have imagined at the time. She would later skip down the hall of a hospital as doctors whispered behind her about tumors that had been on her liver on previous MRI’s, but not on the ones they’d repeatedly run that day.

Sister Grace was a package deal. Her own sister was a couple of states away, so her cousins who lived nearby had to fill in the gap, and Sister Hosey and Sister Montgomery, the two with whom she most closely shared her faith, were the dearest it seemed. They all three lived on land their grandfather had owned, as I recall, and had a quite a history in common growing up. They’d just about fall out with each other at times, but at the core, they’d have done or given anything for each other.

In those days, people “set” with each other. I know, that’s not the right word to use (and I still have trouble remembering where to use “sit” and “set” in writing), but the terminology was, “Come and set with me sometime.” These three ladies, and others in their family, would take turns visiting in each others’ homes, just to talk and enjoy one another’s company. We do that on Facebook and other social media now. What would happen if any of us  knocked on the door of a friend and said, “I just came by to set awhile”?

I began to find myself drawn into the “setting”, and over the years some of my rough edges were knocked off. Not gossip sessions, the predominant topic of conversation was the goodness of the Lord and encouragement from His Word. For readers who haven’t known me for a long time, this was major. Being shy and retiring is a rather substantial trait in my birth family of Thigpen’s. (Perhaps that’s why our family reunion has continued for 83 years: our fore-bearers knew they had to create an annual exception just to stay in touch with their kin.)

There were some interesting moments, many of which went against the grain of my plain ways and preferences. Conversations like these. . .

“I want to come see your ‘tiques sometime…” Sister Montgomery was a confirmed ‘tique (antique) collector, as were the others, and going “tiqueing” with her girls or sisters was a highlight. My quick response was, “Sister, you’re welcome to come walk all through my house, and if you see a ‘tique there, you let me know.” It had never crossed my mind that I should consider collecting anything old. To this day, though, if I see an interesting piece of glassware or pottery, it immediately gets turned over to look for a date or an imprint of any kind to show its value and age. And, yes, she’d find a few if she could come today. I even have one or two that Sister Hosey’s delicate hands were able to glue back together after my clumsiness damaged them, as though nothing had ever happened to them.

“One day you’ll have a little girl with long dark hair. And you’ll go shopping together…” If there was one thing Sister Montgomery liked more than ‘tiquing, it was out-and-out shopping. The only thing I was less likely to do than collecting antiques was shopping for enjoyment. Going to a store was a necessity in my book: what you did when you needed a specific item, and you should surely get it over with as quickly as possible. The thought of going to a mall made me wince. It was absolutely not something you did when you wanted to kill a few hours, and certainly not with a child in tow. My daughter is now twenty years old (with long dark hair), and somehow over these years she has shown me that shopping — with someone you love — can bring a great deal of enjoyment. In fact, earlier this week, I shopped til she dropped.

Sometimes, there were gentle rebukes. . .

We were all to prepare food for our church’s anniversary service. This was a big deal. Ministers from everywhere would be there to celebrate with our church and pastor, and the meal we provided afterwards was always something to behold. I was assigned a dish completely foreign to my culinary talents at the time: punch-bowl cake. Mercifully, Sister Montgomery offered for me to join her and her daughters for a group cooking effort in her kitchen, and she walked me through every phase of the dish. One of the layers of cake and pudding and strawberries and whipped cream wasn’t being applied into the punch bowl to her satisfaction, and I had to be directed on how to get it just right. “When I make something for the church,” she admonished, “I want it to taste as good as it can taste, and to look as good as it can look.” To this day, when I’m arranging my brownies on the nicest platter I can find (sorry, but the punch-bowl cake thing just didn’t stick) I remember that my true assignment is to make sure they taste as good as they can taste, and look as good as they can look. I’m trying, Sister.

Beyond the things that had to be done to tune up my gnarly person, there were other moments that made a serious impression on me, just by watching:

The peculiar way Sister Montgomery’s face and voice changed when holding or talking to, or even speaking about, little babies and children — pure delight, devotion, and focus on that little one, as if the greatest gift God ever gave humanity had been placed within her grasp. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone so devoted. The particular way of burping my own baby when she came along was taught by her as well: “stirring” as she called it, worked a whole lot better than the traditional up-on-the-shoulder-back-pat technique. “You have to stir babies,” she’d told me, which was demonstrated as placing the baby upright on your lap, with a hand on the chest and a hand on the back, then ever-so-gently easing her around in a circular motion from the waist. Worked every time, as I recall.

There came a time when Sister Montgomery said she felt we should begin to have some home prayer meetings. I was all for taking more time to pray together. We started meeting every afternoon, with Sister Hosey, and Sister Grace, and several daughters, granddaughters, and others — up to eight or so ladies. I can honestly say that some of the most powerful prayer meetings I ever experienced were there front of that chair where I knelt in Sister Montgomery’s living room. After a few months, though, a day came that would change her life forever. Her beloved husband, Buster, became very ill and was soon diagnosed with cancer. Though the prayer meetings were somewhat disrupted as she focused her sole attention on caring for him, she recognized God’s preparation: “How could I ever have faced this if we hadn’t already been praying beforehand?” Her faith never wavered, even though there came a day she had to let him go. One night as she prayed alone by his sleeping form in a hospital room, a vision of the Lord Himself appeared at the foot of the bed, assuring her of His love and care during that time. It affected all of us, and strengthened her greatly.

Time and readers’ attention spans would fail for me to tell of the warmth added to my life by accounts of how the family came to God one at a time: first Sister Hosey’s daughter, Kathy, who prayed for the rest of the family until God had His way in many of their lives; Sister Hosey and her son, Jackie; Sister Hosey’s and Sister Montgomery’s mother; another son, Kenny; Sister Montgomery’s daughters, Betsy and Janie, followed by Sister Montgomery and her husband; and eventually Sister Grace (hopefully they’ll forgive me if I recorded that out-of-order or left out someone).

They loved to talk about the goodness of the Lord, and when they got the chance in person or on the telephone, that is what they’d do, for as long as both parties could spare to do it. Years ago, Sister Montgomery and I literally talked all night long about Scripture and God’s goodness, and things we’d seen Him do in our lives and the lives of others. I remember the precious craft items Sister Hosey would make by hand, bringing them to sell to raise money for the church.  I felt a bit condemned that I wasn’t more “crafty”. I treasure memories of Sister Montgomery quoting their mother during church testimony services.  Sister Dykes, who I was not privileged to meet, was well advanced in years when she received the Holy Ghost, but fully understood the essence of living a godly life: “Ninety-nine and a half percent won’t do,” she’d said. “It’s got to be all the way in living for God.”

I vividly recall images of shelling peas as a community, an event the three would gather for as faithfully as prayer meeting. It took lots of hands to get those peas shelled right away, most important because “vegetables start to lose their natural sugar the minute they’re picked, and you have to put them up as quickly as possible”, Sister Montgomery had explained.  It was intended to let me know that I wasn’t just being included; my fingers were sorely needed (pun intended).  I hear the echos of her young grandsons as they strolled through her kitchen: “Fix us something we can drag through some syrup”, they said, which she immediately knew meant sausage was to be fried up, and she gladly complied.

We began to lose them a ways back: seven years ago, Sister Hosey slipped away on Easter Sunday, precious and faithful to the end, though cancer had brought her many, many miserable days. Three years ago, Granny Grace, confined to a nursing home for years due to major health issues, prayed her way on over to the other side. Just last week Sister Montgomery left on a Sunday night to join them for an eternal visit in the presence of the One they most adored. To me, it represented the closing of a chapter I’d never even expected to have written in my life, but am so much richer because of.

It really does make going to see them a more precious thought than ever.

 

WHEN A COAT IS ALL YOU HAVE

This isn’t a post about being without earthly possessions, though it wouldn’t be a bad thing to call attention to — there are certainly people in that situation.

Instead it’s a reference to a message Bro. Aaron Dutton preached recently, and its after-affects in my heart. I’ll try not to ruin the message for any who might have the chance to hear him preach it elsewhere, but its effect was profound.

Jacob, the son of Isaac and father of the twelve sons who became the twelve tribes of Israel, had spent many years in the certainty that the coat he had been given one terrible day was evidence that he would never see his beloved son Joseph alive again. Joseph was Jacob’s obvious favorite, the first son of the wife he most loved, and the jealous older brothers had chosen to finally remedy themselves of this thorn in their sides by selling him to a band of traders — making him a slave — when Joseph had been sent by Jacob to see how they were doing with the sheep they were tending. For a cover once they’d done the deed, Joseph’s beautiful coat, the very symbol of his father’s favor, was dipped in animal blood and taken home for whatever conclusions his father would draw from seeing it. The evidence was strong enough to convince the heartbroken jury of one that it was over. Joseph was never coming back.

We spend a lot of time sure of some “never’s” in our lives, as well.
But there would come a day when Jacob was told that the “dead” son was in fact very much alive and was sending for Jacob to come to where he was. He looked up and saw the evidence with his own eyes: a stream of wagons Joseph had sent for him, loaded with provisions for the journey to Egypt, where Joseph was now second ruler over all the kingdom, with enough corn for their starving family to survive the rest of the famine.

O, joyous day when that “evidence” he’d clung to in sorrow was proven to have been a lie! He would never have to wonder again, never have to listen to the false testimony of that coat again! His eyes had seen the proof.

There have been times in a period of prolonged difficulty that I’ve felt joy, I’ve seen my faith rise, and known God was telling me that He would in fact have His way in the end of my difficult situation. He would answer. He would work. I’ve even seen times where there were results, breakthroughs, that seemed as though the end of the long dark period was at hand. But I’ve seen things appear to slip through my fingers, again. A new layer at times added to complicate the situation.

And when I looked down, it appeared what I had left … was still that coat.

You see, the only thing Jacob had for years and years was the coat. Joseph was out there somewhere. But Jacob had no idea; he only had Joseph’s bloody coat. What could Jacob have done? We only read about his decision to grieve until he died, refusing all comfort. The sons who had so cleverly ridded themselves of a troublesome brother had also lost their father in the process. He was never the same again, and they were no more in his favor than when Joseph was among them.

Great loss, and great trouble, can bring great burdens. Jacob had those things to deal with. But would he have had a choice in his response? Consider the situation that came upon Job. Could Job have also said, “I will go to my grave grieving for my sons and daughters?” Of course he could have, and all the world would have said that was appropriate. But we are forever inspired by Job’s responses: “The LORD giveth, and the LORD taketh away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.”

I know that I serve the God who made Heaven and Earth, who robed Himself in flesh so that He could come and shed His own blood for my sinful soul, the God who found a way to reach fallen man, and fill us with His Spirit, and walk with us daily, to shed His love abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost. Is anything too hard for God?

Does it matter if I’m looking at the wagons or the coat today? Can I be like the widow before the unjust judge who just kept showing up at the place where her help was coming from? Can I be like the Syrophonecian woman who turned the refusal of Jesus to heal her daughter into her miracle, by simply saying “Yes, Lord…”, and that hour received what she was so desperate to have?

I know that my Redeemer liveth. If things are to be fixed, they will be fixed by His power, His hand, His Spirit, His Word, and in His way and His time. His question was, “When the Son of Man cometh, will He find faith in the the Earth?”

From Jacob’s story, I can conclude that when all I have is a coat, I can know that my God is still working on my behalf. I don’t know when the wagons are going to come. But I believe there’re dust and rattling wheels in the distance. As Job also said, “Though He slay me, I will trust in Him.” God loves me, and He will not fail, and I can choose to worship and praise Him when I cannot see. The coat does not have to steal my joy.

There may be more days with no good news, days that continue to come for weeks or months or even years after the message we’ve heard preached that inspired us to high hopes.

Yes, there will be days when all we have in our hands is a coat. How do we walk through those days? As though in our hearts, we can see the wagons that are on the way.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

So, what gets you?

You’re strong, successful in your sphere of influence, important to people close to you — perhaps even to some you’ll never meet in person.  That didn’t happen by accident.

To accomplish what you have, you’ve chosen carefully the paths you’ve taken, rejecting what wasn’t compatible.  To maintain what you’ve achieved, you’ve guarded your perimeter:  you’ve set and kept boundaries, the realm of safety that only admits the influences you choose.  You continue to protect yourself and those closest to you — the ones you’re responsible for.

But I submit to you that there’s a flaw in your plan, a weak place in the field of well-thought protections with which you’ve surrounded your family, business, and career.  You may somehow realize that is the case, or you may be oblivious to the fact that anything is wrong.

Nature has a parallel

Removing brush that was previously cut but left in place at the edge of my yard a few days ago, I found most of the bushes light from drying and easy to handle. When one branch unexpectedly tugged back as I tried to pull it out of the surrounding growth, I looked more closely to determine why. My examination showed an attachment that had formed to the bush well before it had been cut. Something the size of a few strands of human hair had wrapped slowly and quietly around that branch while it was in the process of growing to its present size.  A thorny vine, which eventually made my handling of the brush a bit more uncomfortable, had proceeded to make itself at home in an otherwise healthy, strong plant.

I thought how quickly, subtly, and painlessly the direction we have chosen can be affected by something we hardly notice until its effects have forever changed the outcome of our plans, goals, and dreams.

The danger of safety

The great story of Samson (the closest thing I find in the Bible to our modern concept of a super-hero), is that of a man whose incredible strength came from his separation to God. Before Samson was even conceived, an angel of the Lord had directed his parents in how to raise him as dedicated to the service of the Lord – what to do, and what not to do.

Samson was not, in himself, a strong man, but the Spirit of the Lord came upon him when it was needful to do so, and by that strength, he took out thousands of enemy warriors in a day, single-handed, with the jawbone of a donkey for a weapon. He once pulled up entire set of city gates and carried them on his shoulders, and he continued to outsmart his enemies, while taunting them with his strength.

But over time, Samson took for granted this power (there is no recorded time when he prayed, built an altar, or worshiped God as his forefathers had done).  A woman he loved, Delilah, was approached by the enemies Samson was to deliver his people from, and offered wealth to sell him out. There is no record that she even argued with the people who asked her to betray him.  The woman he loved repeatedly prevailed on Samson to tell her the source of his strength, and though each time he offered her only some ruse in reply, she immediately acted on whatever he had said would work to quell his power, even inviting the enemy to apprehend him once she rendered him powerless.

Somehow, in the midst of this obvious effort to do him in, Samson managed to hold tight to his sense of security, and as Delilah pressed him over and over with her “if you really loved me, you’d…” ploys, he finally broke and “told her all his heart”.  He gave away the secret of the one thing that God had given him as the source of his strength, knowing it was something that she could easily take away from him.

Did he remember that everything he’d told her so far, she had tried? What did he do after disclosing to her the real truth of how to disable him?  Run?  That would have been a sensible plan, but no, he didn’t.  Did he at least ask her to promise not to use the information against him?  No record of that.  What did he do?  He put his head in her lap and went to sleep.  In the place where he was in the most grave danger he’d ever faced, he behaved as one who felt perfectly safe.  If you’re not familiar with how the story turns out, I encourage you  to read it for yourself, (Judges 13-16), but suffice it to say that, after that night, he was never able to feel safe again.

The chink in your armor?

Your flaw may very well be simply feeling you are safe in your own strength and ability.  You’ve done all you can to help your family be financially stable, functional in society, and happy with one another.  Those things are all good. Who gets the credit?

The Apostle Paul, one of the greatest figures in history, leader of the early church, and author of  at least half of the New Testament, summed up his abilities this way: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing…” (Romans 7:18).  Was that some notable false humility from a super-spiritual leader? If you read the context of that chapter, he acknowledged the struggles (really failing to get it right sometimes) that he faced with doing the right thing, then asked, “Oh, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”  He answered his own question with, “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Paul couldn’t do it, but he knew who could.

In the “Never let ’em see you sweat!” society in which we live, confessing that we are not the ones to bring and to hold our own personal world together seems like the weakness that would get one eaten alive.  But that is just what we must do to have real security: trust in the one who made us, and who came to live among us and to redeem us.

Hey, last week even the government recognized that it isn’t totally in control of things that matter, as evidenced by NASA’s advice  to Congress on the best course of action, should a large asteroid be found hurtling toward Earth: “Pray”!

Calling out to the One who alone can add the extra layer of security we could never attain, is the only true way to have security. Jesus is the only one who is powerful enough to safely hold you and your personal world. He’s also the one who holds all the world (and that includes all the asteroids) in his hand.

Two things I bet you can’t do at one time

Walk and chew bubblegum!  Oh, you’ve got that one?  Great!  (Just don’t leave your gum on the sidewalk when you’re done.)

Pat your head and rub your tummy! Good with that one, too?  Wow, we’re getting somewhere.

How about saying “Thank you, God” for your job while griping about your boss?  What? A little harder?  Any takers? Anybody?

I think you get the picture.  Thankfulness is an antidote to numerous negative thoughts and emotions: anger, loneliness, depression, jealousy, selfishness, and other ills as well.  It’s cheaper than therapy, and in fact may be used by therapists at times (I think they call it “reframing”).  The kicker is, you’ve got to do it.  It’s not automatic. You have to hit the brakes on the negative thoughts and reign your mind in to start thinking of what’s positive in your life.  Not simple or always easy — and it goes beyond just the “power of positive thinking”– but virtually anyone can do it.

Lifestyle of looking up, leaning in

Our pastor preached a message a  little while back on the “attitude of gratitude”.  Isn’t it amazing how those words already rhyme so we’ll remember them?  It can sound almost trite to repeat, but the phonetics help keep the concept handy in a sort of survival kit for our spirits.  Like the list of wrongs you can right with apple cider vinegar, the things you’re unable to keep in your heart when an attitude of gratitude is cultivated continues to grow the more you think about it.

Consider these:

  •  list three things you’re thankful for about your wife (don’t leave out seemingly mundane things like finding clean socks in your drawer and knowing there will be toothpaste in the cabinet when you need it). Now, hold those thoughts and picture yourself yelling at her for burning the toast.  Feels kind of icky, doesn’t it?
  • as your eyes water at the sight of a fellow church member’s new ride, start thinking of all the times your just-about-to-be-qualified-as-a-classic has been there for you when you needed a way to go, and tell God “thank you” for allowing you to have what you have and tell him “thank you” for blessing your brother. I promise your eyes will clear up and there will be more peace in your heart.  And you may even have the urge to shine up that old car!
  • as a single mom, you find yourself drifting dangerously into the realm  of  “how can I raise these kids alone with that so-called husband out of the picture and supporting us to the negative degrees of 10 (as in not any) — I’ve got to find somebody.”  Start to list things that God has done for you since you’ve had those kids — times he’s sent a neighbor by to offer help, or that rebate check from an over-payment on a doctor bill that came unexpectedly, but just in time, or when a trusted adult at church took up time with your son to show him how young men were supposed to conduct themselves.  Feel like you can hold on a little longer, until God brings who He has in mind, if that’s His plan?  I thought so.  Works every time.

Not just for “churchy” folks

In my years of working in the mental health field I’ve observed the efficiency of teaching someone, even with intellectual disabilities, a positive behavior to replace a negative one, and then reinforcing the positive one more often, so the negative one would eventually go away.  The trick was selecting a behavior that simply couldn’t be done while the negative one was in progress. It is an “incompatible behavior” — for example, you can’t be late and on time at the same time, or use your hands for manipulating a puzzle while using them for some behavior that has unwanted social or even health consequences.

Put simply, being thankful is an incompatible behavior with most negative thoughts.

Where’s that in the Bible?

Yep, it’s in there.  In fact, it’s the attitude God commands for our approaching Him: “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise, be thankful unto him, and bless his name.” (Psalm 100:4). This is one of many places where thanksgiving is not only encouraged, but commanded.

Think of how you feel when you hand your kid a gift you worked hard to provide, and have them either trash it or heedlessly turn around and ask for something else.  We’re made in God’s image, so amplify our feelings exponentially and the God “in whose hand thy breath is” (Daniel 5:23) feels much more the same way. And above all, this kind of thankfulness does much more than just make you feel better.  Drawing near to God, who made us and everything there is, is the answer for weathering, and calming, the storm.

What all can’t you do while being thankful?

It’s hard to complain about the rain while being thankful a farmer somewhere was able to grow the wheat that made that wonderful sandwich you’re savoring. It’s even hard to complain about what you had to pay the doctor, and the surgery clinic, and the pharmacy,  while being thankful it was just the tonsils you’re having to contend with (if you need a dose of thankfulness there, research a specialty children’s hospital, and read the stories of children they treat).

As our pastor mentioned once, a certain POW in a Vietnam prison camp found it difficult to complain about the pain he suffered from the inhumanity being practiced against him, when he realized that his feeling pain meant he was still alive and able to fight back within his spirit: he had not given up as he’d seen others do.  Corrie ten Boom’s sister challenged her to thank God for the fleas in their concentration camp barracks, as recorded by Corrie in The Hiding Place.  Though Corrie resisted the idea, she forced herself to say, Thank you for the fleas,” only to realize days later that their clandestine Bible studies had not been disturbed by guards in this barracks as in others.  Why?  You guessed it:  the fleas! The guards wouldn’t even come near them because the fleas were so bad.

The bottom line?

No one thing is going to answer everyone’s problem, and many are the folks who suffer worse things than I can imagine.  But though none is free to choose their circumstances, all are free to choose their response.  In so doing, we may be also securing the insight and response of Almighty God, who resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

What about you? Have you found an “attitude of gratitude” to be a source of strength in your life? Are you otherwise good at doing two things at one time? I’d love to hear your story.  Please leave a comment, if you’d like to share.